Audio Research Reference 3 Preamplifier 
Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps
Written by Julianne Stilson   
Monday, 02 February 2009

The Basics:

Coming from audio equipment designer and manufacturer Audio Research, the Reference 3 Preamplifier is high-end, high-performance equipment whose internal components were designed from the ground up. This new design is characterized by an innovative, unique circuitry that features a tube-regulated power supply and uses four 6H30 twin triode tubes. This means the Reference 3 provides twice the energy storage than older models. As a result, this valve-powered, line-level preamplifier can offer some truly powerful capabilities.

Its standout design includes a large, green vacuum-fluorescent display with enhanced functionally that surpasses LED readings in older models. A combination of text, numbers, and graphical scales deliver alerts like channel balance, tube life, volume, and more. In addition, the front panel is laid out cleanly with spring-loaded switches for input selection and volume on either side of the generous display. Below the display is a row of convenient buttons for further control. While the included remote control does not replicate all the front panel’s functions, it does provide the most needed operations, including stereo/mono switching.

The Upside:

The Audio Research Reference 3 does its very vital job in the audio chain, and it does it very well. It’s most important element is its delivery of detailed, lifelike sound no matter the quality of the original recording. This is thanks to being the “gold standard” of design and manufacturing both inside and out.

Whether you have an existing sound system or home theater or just in the planning stages, you don’t have to worry about expansion or integration. The Reference 3 accommodates both single-ended and balances XLR inputs and outputs.

The Downside

True audiophiles won’t be frightened by the Reference 3’s over $10,000 price tag. After all, this is the top of the line. However, less dedicated audio enthusiasts might be turned off at the several hundred hours it will take for the Reference 3 to be “broken in” in order for the preamplifier to deliver its best sound performance (about 300 hours of use).

While the Reference 3’s tube components are very well-built and long-lasting, as with all tube-based products, the tube components will still be subject to future wear-and-tear over its lifetime. However, the tubes are easily replaceable. In fact, manufacturer Audio Research still carries replacement parts for products it released in the 1970s so buyers can count on their support.


Despite its high rank as the best in its category, the Audio Research Reference 3 Preamplifier is, all in all, still easy-to-use and a joy to use. It has solid construction, well thought out and intuitive design, and powerful features that certainly command its high-end price tag. The sound it delivers (and that only its tube-centric design can deliver) is without compare—crisp, realistic, and larger than life.
Genre Tube

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